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To Hull with the crap town naysayers: UK Culture City's got some amazing... telecoms

'People do tend to have a negative perception of Hull'

Photo by Daniel J Rao via Shutterstock

Feature Most people are aware of Hull's status as the UK City of Culture this year - along with it being serial holder of the Crappiest Town in Britain. But few also know about the city's unique telecoms history.

Although the award was met much bafflement and a good deal of snobbery, there are a number of things that makes the city stand out.

A quick run down by The Hull Daily Mail listed 50 reasons why it was awarded that status. These included: alumni such as curmudgeonly resident and poet Philip Larkin; '80s band The Housemartins; and the city’s unique paprika Chip Spice.

Top of the list was Hull's most famous son, the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, followed by its cream-coloured phone boxes, a visual reminder of the city's unique telecoms history.

Hull is the only city in the UK with its own independent telephone company in the form of Kingston Communications, now KCOM.

The city's legacy of having an independent network was recently praised by digital minister Matt Hancock.

He said: "[A]round the world the evidence increasingly points to fibre rollout as the underpinning of a digital nation. To those who say it's been tried and failed, I say go to Hull.

"It's the one part of the country not covered by BT, and full fibre is now available to over half its businesses and homes."

That is significantly higher than the 2 per cent fibre-to-the-home penetration in the rest of the country.

Accidental independence

Hull's independent network goes back to the turn of the last century. In 1902 the city council was granted a licence to operate telephone services and Hull Corporation Telephone Department opened shop two years later.

Thirteen other local authorities were also granted licences but their operations were slowly absorbed by the Post Office Telephone Company, which became the GPO, then BT.

Hull was only allowed to retain its licence on condition of a £192,000 purchase of telephone infrastructure in the city that had been owned by the National Telephone Company – a firm that had been taken over the Post Office.

It was a deal that the city’s council approved.

Telecoms remained the responsibility of the telephone department of council until 1987. It then became Kingston Communications, was partially floated in 1999, and was eventually fully privatised in 2007.

KCOM chief exec Bill Halbert believes the network's history of independent public ownership left the city a positive legacy. "If you look at that history part of city council, the local network that it developed was significantly over-engineered compared with others."

He says Hull is served by about 15 exchanges, as opposed to around four found in places of comparable size. Most of the network was laid in concrete ducts and overhead poles, which made it much easier to install fibre because it didn't have to incur the expense of digging up roads.

Forget Silicon Roundabout

KCOM is not the only provider keen to deploy a large-scale fibre rollout. CityFibre said last year it wants to make Hull a "Gigabit City" in partnership with local provider Pure Broadband via its 62km network.

However, it’s worth noting that Hull still has a high proportion of people who lack decent connectivity. According to regulator Ofcom's 2016 Connected Nations Report, because of the relative lack of fibre-to-the-cabinet deployment in Hull, consumers in the city rely on slower, all-copper-based services (pdf).

As a result, around 24 per cent of premises in the Hull area are unable to get more than 10Mbps. Ofcom said that was "the shorter term price" of prioritising fibre, which "runs the risk of creating a two-tier online community".

But while a number of people appear to be behind when it comes to basic connectivity, access to fibre still remains significantly higher than nearly anywhere else in the country.

Some believe the city's high-speed connectivity combined with its cheap cost of living compared with the South East make it an ideal place as a tech hub.

John Connolly, managing director at the city's tech incubator Centre for Digital Innovation (C4DI), believes that is a key reason a lot of startups are basing themselves in Hull. The £4m building opened in December 2015 and covers 21,000ft2 of office space.

"People do tend to have a negative perception of Hull, despite having never been to the region. But technology companies are not constrained by location."

The hot-desking facilities claim to have the fastest internet connection in the UK, making it an attractive option when combined with the low cost of living, which Connolly also claims is "better than any other part of the country".

But despite having a growing start-up scene, Hull was notably absent from Theresa May's recent £556m investment boost to the Northern Powerhouse.

When it comes to the number of start-ups in the city, Hull still lags behind other cities. According to the city index by Startups.co.uk, just 880 new businesses were launched in 2015 - compared to 1,250 in Nottingham, a city of comparable size.

It's hoped that the creation of the C4DI at the end of 2015 will boost the city's startup scene.

Connolly says C4DI is aimed at working practically with local businesses.

"The tendency can be for tech hubs to work in silos with lots of geeks just building software, whereas ours is very much outward looking. We engage with 500 local businesses, giving them support and expertise," says Connolly.

C4DI has formed links with PwC, Ebuyer and Amazon Web Services.

"We have startups delivering global projects to Siemens and Durex." He notes that is a different proposition to somewhere like Silicon Roundabout.

One company based in C4DI is the ESP Group, which provides the tech for Oyster Cards in London. WHAT TECH? Another is the brand management firm Trident, which specialises in computer graphics and works with global companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and L'Oréal.

"There are a lot of really good, solid companies in Hull that no one knows about," says Connolly.

High-performance computer science

When it comes to tech, the city has a proud history – a least on computer science. And it’s that computer science past that’s really helping Hull now.

A team of boffins at Hull University led by Professor George Gray into LED technology and liquid crystals in the 1970s, which became seminal in leading to the development of computers and flat-screen TVs.

Hull University was one of the first to offer an MSc in Computer Science for Games Development, and now teaches many other specialist subjects including algorithms and the theory you need to make game environments “happen.”

“The emphasis is how you can make the theory useful,” university head of Computer Science Neil Gordon told The Reg.

"That has been a key theme to all our courses, including the MSc in Security and Distributed Computing, Software Engineering and Embedded Systems."

Hull recently established Viper, the first university-wide High-Performance Computing (HPC) cluster, provides infrastructure for students and academics to tackle big computational problems in the fields of physics and astronomy.

Viper is based on elements of the Intel Scalable System Framework and makes use of the latest Xeon E5-2680v4 (Broadwell) processors and Omni-Path Architecture.

The university expects it to be the highest-performance machine of any northern university and in the top 10 of university HPCs nationally, according to Scientific Computing.

It also has a Hull Immersive Visualisation Environment department, which uses headsets to allow students to experience how researchers use gaming technology in commercial and training contexts.

Gordon says the computer science at Hull has doubled in size over the last decade with 320 boffins in the first year – significantly above the national increase in students taking the subject.

"Most of our undergrads get jobs. Some degrees struggle with that. But we have one of the highest post-graduate employment rates in the country." He says historically students tended to move away, but with C4DI initiative and growth in technical companies in the region, more graduates are choosing to stick around.

"Students who visit find the preconceptions of Hull are not realistic or fair. They actually find it is a very attractive place to study, live and work. The issue has been that perception – with the various crap city reports. But I think we're overcoming a lot of that and the City of Culture will help." ®

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